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Joshua TopolskyJoshua Topolsky
Joshua Topolsky
The Verge

 

Google wants your phone to make you a superhero, to make you more powerful and to make you smarter.

On top of all that, Google wants you to love your phone, too. Apparently, love is an emotion the company has found lacking when it comes to its Android line of smartphones.

I know what you’re thinking: How is it possible the public has failed to fall in love with devices called Droids? Devices that are advertised primarily in violent television spots that seem to indicate the phone is as likely to put you in a meat grinder as it is to help you find directions to the nearest deli?

According to the head of user experience for Android — a man named Matias Duarte — for people to love their devices, the company had to figure out what the “soul” of Android was. “I don’t think anybody ever asked about the soul,” he tells me. “This was my question. It was the question I challenged the team with.”

The answer to Duarte’s question — the romantically named Galaxy Nexus, which was built in partnership with Samsung — was revealed this week at an event in Hong Kong. Literally a huge slab of a device, the Galaxy Nexus comes with all the fixings: a nearly five-inch HD display, a fast dual-core processor and Verizon’s 4G LTE service. But what is the soul of the new machine? It’s a new, more lovable version of the Android operating system dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich.

Duarte says that his team studied the current crop of competitors — most notably Apple’s iPhone operating system iOS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 — and found their visual ideas lacking. Apple’s iOS deals in the re-creation of real-world objects in almost cartoonish ways — the calendar with leather edges, for instance. Windows Phone 7, Duarte says, is stark and cold, like “airport lavatory signage.”

The new Ice Cream Sandwich software is an evolution of the tablet operating system the company announced in January nicknamed “Honeycomb.” But, Duarte says, “we wanted to do more than just bring Honeycomb to phones.”

So while the Honeycomb interface had a cold futurism to it, Google wanted to use the Web as a basis for design in Ice Cream Sandwich — meaning the company needed to find a consistent language and layout, but not stay lassoed to a particular style. The Galaxy Nexus’s interface is still plenty futuristic, but it eschews the familiarity of Apple’s cartoonish icons, the flatness of Microsoft’s OS and the hard lines of Honeycomb. It’s friendly without being exaggerated, modern without feeling overly synthetic.

In Duarte’s words, the company “pumped up the snooty design quotient” and “toned down the geeky nerd quotient.”

For a company known for data rather than design, Ice Cream Sandwich is a big step in the right direction. While Apple has known all along that the experience and feel of a device can be more important than its abilities or specifications like memory capacity or weight, Google is just starting to play catch-up in the world of aesthetics.

But what about your phone making you feel like a superhero? There are tricks for that, too.

The phone can now unlock itself just by seeing you using facial recognition. It can take nearly instant dictation for
e-mails, messages and more. It can take photos with zero shutter lag (meaning you never have to wait for the picture to save to keep snapping). It can “beam” files back and forth to other Galaxy Nexuses just by tapping the two devices together — a neat trick made possible through the use of NFC (near-field communication) technology. The phone can even tell you when you’re using too much data on your plan — and cut you off if you want it to.

Google’s Ice Cream Sandwich also includes a new “People” application, which is meant to help you stay more connected to friends and family.

I’ve seen and used the device, and I can say that it really is a big change for the Android that most people know. Not only is the Galaxy Nexus a serious competitor to the best-in-breed iPhone 4S, but in many ways, it feels like Google is purposefully attacking the hard, masculine branding of its devices that Verizon has been keen to push in its advertising and partners such as Motorola have heartily embraced.

Instead, Google seems to be saying these aren’t just devices for the bleeding edge, but for the center. It’s an ironic statement for Google to make, since it currently has a larger market share in smartphones than any of the other players in the game.

When I talked to Duarte about his vision for this new device, he told me that long ago he’d decided that smartphones weren’t for a certain kind of person. “They were for everyone,” he says. “Smartphones were the way phones were supposed to be.”

With Ice Cream Sandwich and the Galaxy Nexus, it looks like Google is starting to believe that, too.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of The Verge, a technology news Web site debuting this fall, and former editor in chief of Engadget.

Congratulations to Conor White-Sullivan and the team at Localocracy, which became a recent acquisition of the Huffington Post, as reported by Kara Swisher on WSJ's AllThingsD. Arianna Huffington said, "[Conor and team are] pioneers in using the web to empower citizens to improve their towns, and their unique vision and talents will enable us to deepen our users' engagement with our sites."

localocracy.pnglocalocracy.png

This is further evidence of the "neighbor connect" online space heating up. In the past year, I'm aware of at least two dozen significant startups focused on facilitating conversation among people who live near each other. Some, like Localocracy, aim at niches (local ballot issues and related), while others intend to promote a general sense of community.

STRONG ON TECH, WEAK ON TRACTION

 

Huffington Post/AOL joins MSNBC.com, which acquired EveryBlock.com last year, in this space, as well as many other new VC-backed and boot-strapped entrants. Most startups in this area appear to be strong on tech and weak on traction. That is, they can crank out the code, but few people actually show up and use their product. To make matters worse, many attempt to open up everywhere all at once. As a friend said, "A mile wide and an inch deep."

Front Porch Forum is an established leader in this space, with amazing traction in our state, Vermont. More than half of our primary city participates. In another FPF town, 75 percent of members post -- much higher than the 1-10 percent seen on many social sites. And the member success stories flow through FPF faster than we can write them down. People use FPF to reduce crime, find jobs, give away baby gear, reunite with lost pets, recommend roofers, debate ballot measures, call city hall on the carpet, and much more.

With our new web application recently launched, we look forward to bringing Front Porch Forum to communities far and wide.

A version of this story first appeared on the Front Porch Forum blog.

Microsoft wants the Xbox 360 to be the only set-top box you need to have sat next to your TV. And it’s going a long way down the path to achieving that with its latest line-up of TV services coming to an Xbox 360 near you soon.

Games Consoles Plus

This generation of home games consoles are more than just for playing games on. All three current models – the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii – can be hooked up to the Internet and turned into entertainment hubs in your living room, delivering digital media down the tubes and on to your television.

This has been going on for several years now, with Microsoft and Sony continually upping the ante in terms of the number of partners, and quality and range of content. And Microsoft is taking things to a whole new level with its latest effort on the Xbox 360.


Xbox 360 TV

A subscription-based TV service for the Xbox 360 was first rumored before E3 back in June. But that hasn’t come to pass. Perhaps the rumors were just slightly off, or perhaps Microsoft wasn’t able to secure the deals needed to make a subscription worth paying. Either way, we’ve ended up with something else. But it’s still good.

Microsoft has struck licensing deals with around 40 broadcasters, many in the U.S., others covering 20 countries. Content partners coming to the Xbox 360 include Bravo, ESPN, HBO, Syfy, BBC, Canal+, FOXTEL, MediaSet, and ZDF.

These content partners will provide some but not all of the programming via the Microsoft console, with gamers able to use Kinect to browse through the list and choose the channel they want to watch. The caveat is the need for an Xbox Live Gold subscription, and subscriptions to the individual content partners. So while some will be free and available to all, others will be locked to the majority of people.

Don Mattrick, president of the Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft, said:

“Today’s announcement is a major step toward realizing our vision to bring you all the entertainment you want, shared with the people you care about, made easy. Combining the world’s leading TV and entertainment providers with the power of Kinect for Xbox 360 and the intelligence of Bing voice search will make TV and entertainment more personal, social and effortless.”

Conclusions

The range of channels and broadcasters available on the Xbox 360 after this update is huge, but it’s important to remember this isn’t going to be a replacement for a full cable service, so cord-cutters beware.

Having said that, Microsoft has worked hard to secure deals with industry titans, and Xbox 360 owners will now get to watch TV through their once-humble games console. That’s a hell of a leap from just a few years ago.

Were you hoping to buy Hulu and had a spare $2 billion plus lying around the house not doing anything? Then your luck is out, as Hulu’s owners have decided to hold on to the online video service. At least for the time being.

Hulu For Sale

Hulu was put up for sale at the end of June after its owners, Disney, News Corps., Comcast, and Providence decided now might be the perfect time to cash out their chips. Why? And why now? No one really seems sure, but it has been suggested there was a desire to nab a new owner now who could then be rinsed in a couple of years when it came time to reach an agreement on licensing content.

The number of bidders was cut down until eventually just two serious contenders remained in the game. Dish Networks with a bid of $1.9 billion and the terms in place, and Google with a bid of $4 billion for something different than the current owners had in mind.

In the end neither was deemed good enough.


Hulu Not For Sale

Lo and behold Hulu is no longer for sale. The company’s owners decided to “terminate the sale process,” and issued the following statement:

Since Hulu holds a unique and compelling strategic value to each of its owners, we have terminated the sale process and look forward to working together to continue mapping out its path to even greater success. Our focus now rests solely on ensuring that our efforts as owners contribute in a meaningful way to the exciting future that lies ahead for Hulu.

You have to assume this decision was taken purely because the bids coming in weren’t high enough. If someone had offered double the asking price and accepted the terms of the deal then Hulu would surely have changed hands by now.

Having received only mild interest Disney etc. have clearly decided to scrub the plan to sell and instead make the most of the opportunity they have. And recent it’s become clearer than ever over the past few months that Hulu isn’t exactly a lame duck.

Conclusions

I suspect Hulu will continue on its current form for the time being, with more content added, and more Hulu Plus subscribers sought. But I have a feeling this isn’t the last we’ll hear of Hulu being up for sale. Perhaps in a couple of years’ time when the licensing agreements are up for renewal.

 

All eyes will be on Cupertino, Calif., on Tuesday as Apple presents its iPhone event, but there’s still a lot of speculation and confusion over what exactly the company will reveal.

Some expect one new iPhone; others expect two. Some say that the next iPhone will besimilar to iPhone 4, while others expect a total revamp.

While nothing is confirmed about the new model of the phone, most are sure about three specifications: a new iPhone will have a faster processor, it will be a "universal phone” that runs on both GSM and CDMA networks and that it will have deeply integrated voice navigation.

All other rumors — it will have a slimmer profile, it will have an NFC chip, it will run on 4G networks, etc. — are a mix of furious speculation and wishful thinking.

The company will also likely pull back the curtain on its next-generation operating system, which users got a peek of at Apple’s June Worldwide Developers’ Conference. The company’s iOS 5 and its iCloud suite of programs will likely send the average consumer even further into the cloud by providing free (and paid) storage space for photos, movies, music, apps — all hooked into Apple’s massive content and entertainment ecosystem.

Other expected announcements include a partnership with Facebook and news about the future of the iPod, which has historically been the focus of Apple’s fall events.

The event will be a test for the company, which hasn’t released a brand-new iPhone in over a year. Apple has built a ton of momentum going into this event, somehow managing to continually break its own handset sales records while simultaneously driving up hype for its next model. Users will have to be impressed with the new handset and Apple’s new operating system to keep the company in that enviable position.

This will also be a test for Apple’s new chief executive, Tim Cook, who will be the main speaker at the event. Cook, who was Apple’s chief operating officer before succeeding Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in August, will have to prove to Apple’s fans that the company hasn’t lost the spark of innovation and excitement that Apple fans — fittingly or not — associate with Jobs.